As venture capitalists lean on tech to make growing and eating food more efficient, Naomi Starkman makes an argument for investing in old-school solutions and bricks and mortar infrastructure like the Redd on Salmon Street.
An excerpt from Naomi Starkman’s keynote address delivered at the Redd on Salmon Street, December 3, 2015
We hear the phrase “the future of food” a lot these days. Despite much that is wrong in our food system, I believe the future of food could be very hopeful, in light of a growing demand for a better food system: One that is good, clean, and fair.
I’m thrilled about the potential of the Redd, because, as an avid observer to the growing food movement, it represents the real and tangible bricks and mortar of what I hope will indeed be the “future of food.”
The Redd embodies the building blocks of a new food economy, one that supports farmers, ranchers, producers, and community. And one that supports the land, the soil, animals, and people in harmony.
Recently, journalists Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, along with others, proposed that we need a new national food policy for the 21st Century, which among other things, could result in a healthier population, a reduction in hunger, mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, rural and inner city economic development, and a reduction in socioeconomic inequality.
One of the national food policy’s key recommendations is to increase support to towns and cities in building year-round farmers’ markets and other regional food infrastructure, especially in underserved urban neighborhoods, which draw farmers and real food into cities, revitalize rural, and urban economies and could become signature public-works legacies.
After visiting the Redd and learning more about its potential, I’m firmly convinced it could be all of that and more.
Though it might feel like we’re living in a foodie bubble on the West Coast, I am seeing change in the food system happening all across the country, and especially in the marketplace, where eaters are voting with their dollars, pushing fast-food establishments to offer meat raised without antibiotics or cage-free eggs, and other big food brands to remove artificial ingredients and reformulate their products to meet the growing consumer demand for better food. It’s exciting to bear witness to these victories, small and large, and the hunger for a better way.
“The future of food I want to live in is one that addresses head-on the questions of race, justice, and equity.” –Naomi Starkman
Indeed, food is the new black. In the Silicon Valley, where I’m spending this year as a Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford, the food revolution has a new crop of champions. Venture capitalists are pouring billions of dollars into new food and agriculture businesses that, at least theoretically, could improve our health and the health of the planet.
And startups all along the food chain are reaping huge rewards: In the first half of this year alone, $2 billion was invested in food tech, nearly as much as the $2 billion total in 2014, which was two and a half times the amount invested in 2013.
The “future of food” is on the minds of these hyper-tech-focused VCs, as well as others who are asking the oft-repeated question of how we will “feed nine billion” in the years to come. But I’d like to propose this might actually not be the right question. Rather than asking “how can we feed the world?” perhaps we should be asking “why aren’t we feeding the world well enough already?”
In truth, modern industrial agricultural methods can no longer feed the world, due to overlapping environmental and ecological crises linked to land, water, and resource availability.
Additionally, the massive investment in biotechnology we’ve seen and its supposed promises have so far failed to expand yield or global security. However, traditional methods of agroecology have been shown to increase food supplies and reduce the environmental impact of production.
Enough food is produced today for everyone to have the nourishment they need. Unfortunately, more than one third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. Global demand for cheap, industrial meat is also driving resources to produce more crops for animals, rather than feeding the many. And there are huge global inequalities in the distribution of food.
It’s worth remembering that food isn’t just a source of energy, or a business opportunity. It’s much more than that. Former AOL CEO Steve Case recently said, “I’ve seen the future of food, and with all due respect to my visionary colleagues in Silicon Valley, it is not Soylent.”
Soylent is a powdered meal replacement, which received upwards of $20 million in venture funding. Yes, $20 million.
Case asks the right question, when he says: “Do we need healthier food and a cheaper way of sourcing and distributing that food? Absolutely. But that’s not a powder. It’s authentic, natural foods, locally sourced, sustainably grown, brought fresh to our tables. Put another way: The future of food is food.” I love that and I couldn’t agree more.
While many are excited about food tech and are looking at food delivery services, apps for reducing food waste, drones for precision agriculture, and lab-created, new-fangled food products, I would like to suggest that investing in food and agriculture — real assets, real farms, real people — itself is worthwhile because it offers the best return on investment, which is our sustained future.
What we need now, for a real, viable future of food is to invest locally and regionally to help small to medium size producers bring their food to market; We need real investment in infrastructure including aggregation, distribution, transportation, and refrigeration. Ecotrust and the Redd can help meet these needs by offering key infrastructure support and facilitating market opportunities for smaller producers.
A place like the Redd is essential because it will create a direct connection between farmers and institutional customers, much like farmers’ markets connect growers and consumers. It also will provide a transformative opportunity for triple bottom line impact investing, by providing important growth opportunities for farmers, offering viable alternatives to large-scale consolidated markets and distribution, and revitalizing the local economy.
The Redd will also realize an environmental outcome by reducing food miles while its social outcomes will be realized by delivering healthy, fresh, and affordable food to all. It will inspire a practice of eating, made possible by this infrastructure, that starts with the soil. It will continue to support family farmers and ranchers, who are stewards of the land. And, as it turns out, the soil itself is the best technology we have to sequester carbon and turn the tide on climate change.
It is increasingly clear that we live in a two-tiered food system in which the wealthy tend to eat well and are rewarded with better health, while the poor tend to eat low-quality diets, causing their health to suffer. The rates of diet-related disease break down dramatically along racial lines. There is a chronic lack of access to healthy foods in underserved communities, often referred to as “food deserts.” And the reliance on highly processed food is causing disease, suffering, and eventual death, especially to those in the poorest of neighborhoods. The future of food I want to live in is one that addresses head-on the questions of race, justice, and equity.
Jobs, training, and workforce development are required for a food system that is fair and just. The Redd will create both training programs and living wage jobs, and make those opportunities available to vulnerable populations.
There are many challenges in the food movement that we’re working to collectively solve. And there’s hope to turn our food system in a direction that ultimately benefits our own health, the vibrancy of our local economies, the vitality of our farmers, and the wellness of our communities.
The Redd project is one concrete, actionable, positive, and exciting solution.
Naomi Starkman is a Founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Civil Eats. She is a 2015-16 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. She is a founding board member of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Naomi served as the Director of Communications & Policy at Slow Food Nation and has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, and WIRED magazines. She was previously the Director of Communications for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.